As of mid-2011, more than 94,000 refugees and asylum seekers were registered with UNHCR in Malaysia. Over 90% of these refugees are from Myanmar, mostly from the ethnic Chin population.
Australian media and politicians turn public attention towards Indonesia when we refer to "boat people" and people smugglers. However there are less than 3000 asylum seekers and refugees in Indonesia. Malaysia is "home" to between 90,000 and 170,000 refugees and asylum seekers. Malaysia is often the first country asylum seekers and refugees flee to. It is in Malaysia where people may first meet with a people smuggler.
Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN Convention for Refugees however it does have a UNCHR presence. It does not officially recognise refugee status, it is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention or the 1967 Protocol, which places itself at odds with its international obligations and creating serious risks to the human rights of refugees and asylum seekers.
In Malaysia asylum seekers and refugees predominantly come from Myanmar (Burma), Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia.
Refugees and asylum seekers are still considered "illegal migrants" in Malaysia. They have no formal legal status or right to work. Despite recent government promises, they face the daily prospect of being arrested, detained in squalid conditions, and tortured and otherwise ill-treated, including by caning. They face the constant fear of being forced to return to a country where they may be stripped of their rights or even killed.
Malaysia is both a destination and transit country for a significant number of refugees and asylum seekers. Despite not being a signatory to the 1951 Convention, the UNHCR is present in Malaysia and has facilitated resettlement for refugees in USA, Australia, Canada, Denmark, Norway and Sweden.
UNHCR is the main actor of protection and assistance for asylum seekers and refugees in Malaysia: 92 per cent, or some 85,300, are from Myanmar, comprising some 36,600 Chins, 20,100 Rohingyas, 9000 Myanmar Muslims, 3900 Mon, 3500 Kachins and other ethnicities from Myanmar. There are some 7400 refugees and asylum-seekers from other countries, including some 4000 Sri Lankans, 1050 Somalis, 710 Iraqis and 510 Afghans.